The Great Walls of China

The Great Wall is perhaps the most iconic piece of Chinese architecture and the best known outside of China. It is also widely misunderstood. Border walls like the Great Wall in China, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the Great Wall of Gorgan in Persia do not function the same way as the walls of a city or fortress. These walls are less about keeping people out than they are about managing, observing, and sending a message to the people entering the country or already within it.

A view of the wall from near the eastern terminus, photograph by Jack Upland via Wikimedia
A view of the wall from near the eastern terminus, photograph by Jack Upland via Wikimedia

First of all, there isn’t just one wall. As you can see on this map, there are numerous walls built at different times in different places over the course of more than two thousand years.

Map of the Great Wall of China, by Maxmillian Dörbecker via Wikimedia

Even the walls built by individual dynasties did not mark out linear borders but were discontinuous and layered with loops and branches. Different techniques of construction were used in different stretches of wall.

A tower near the western terminus, constructed of beaten earth, photograph by Gwydion M via Wikimedia
A tower near the western terminus, constructed of beaten earth, photograph by Gwydion M via Wikimedia
An early section of wall built of rough stone, photograph Rolfmueller via Wikimedia

For most of their length, these walls were not intended to be defended against concerted attack the way city walls could be. For one thing, it would have been impossible to maintain large enough garrisons to mount an effective defense at any point that might be attacked. For another thing, many of the wall sections do not face against hostile territories but fall within zones already controlled by the Chinese state of the time. No dynasty’s walls attempted to surround the entire country or even cover an entire frontier. While even an undefended wall would slow down an army encumbered with cavalry, siege weapons, or baggage train, many stretches of wall run through rough terrain no army would attempt to cross anyway.

The purpose of the walls was to channel the movement of travelers—be they merchants, nomads, potential attackers, or anyone else—towards defined routes and crossing points where their transit could be monitored and taxed. The walls also offered an elevated vantage point for observing the countryside and surveilling the movements of travelers and also provided a route of communication between garrison of frontier troops. Eastern sections of wall ran along the route of the Silk Road and provided bases for patrolling the route.

Jiayu Gate, photograph by Emcc83 via Wikimedia
Jiayu Gate, photograph by Emcc83 via Wikimedia

In addition to their practical functions, the walls were also important as statements of power. The building of walls, in almost every culture, connotes ownership and control. When the emperors of China ordered the building of walls across their territory, they were asserting power over the land they marked out. The walls were clear and highly visible demonstrations of the scale on which China could organize its labor and resources, demonstrations that were as visible to the workers who built them and the traders whose caravans traveled under them as they were to any hostile forces. The custom of new dynasties building new walls rather than just repairing the walls built by previous generations reflects not just changing dynastic geographies but also the need to assert power in traditionally recognized ways.

Thoughts for writers

The monuments of the past may impress us with their scale and grandeur, but when that is all we think about we risk reducing the people who created them to caricatures of ambitious architects at best, crazed egomaniacs at worst. We owe it to the people of history to understand them as people with motives and purposes that are as rational as our own.

Like the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Walls of China seem to take understandable motivations—burying the dead, defending territory—to extremes that defy rational interpretation. It is easy to reduce them to symbols of imperial hubris or a collective national obsession. We are in danger of letting our awe at the monuments of the past be mixed with disdain for the people who built them. We have to remember that they were just as smart as we are and if they did things we couldn’t imagine doing, they had as good reasons for doing them as we have for our own decisions.

The same goes for our fiction. It’s easy to imagine crazy kings and megalomaniacal emperors ordering massive works to gratify their own egos, but it is part of our job when worldbuilding to understand the rationality behind the things that seem irrational on the surface—not in the sense of “It makes sense to them because they’re just that crazy,” but “It makes sense because this is how they communicate their strength and maintain control of territory.” The Great Walls of China are not just fortress walls scaled up to a gigantic scope but a rational response to the problems of managing a complex and diverse empire.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.